Commentary: A chance to meaningfully reduce plastic packaging waste

Alejandro Pérez for Times Union

Originally published in Times Union

March began with a victory for conservation, as 175 nations agreed to craft a global treaty that would stem the flow of plastic waste into nature. The bad news is the United States is far from ready to implement the kind of national waste plan called for under such a treaty. The good news is states like New York are blazing a trail for the rest of the country to follow, by pursuing policies that can deliver on this new ambition.

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s executive budget includes a potential game-changer: a provision for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) that would make producers and brands financially responsible for the recycling of consumer packaging.

Under an EPR framework, producers and brands would pay for the recycling of materials, and would be penalized for selling hard-to-recycle packaging or for not incorporating recycled content into their packaging portfolio. Over time, recycled content would become available and cost effective.

Consumers simply don’t need — nor do they want — so much waste. By making producers responsible for recycling, they would use less plastic, and use it more responsibly.

As a result of aging infrastructure, spotty access to recycling and the public’s widespread confusion over exactly what is recyclable, only 13 percent of plastic packaging in the United States currently ends up recycled and only 2 percent achieves circularity — that is, where the product ultimately becomes the same product again. The rest accumulates in landfills, communities and nature, to devastating effect. Over 11 million metric tons of plastic waste ends up in our oceans every year, and global plastic production is on track to double by 2050 if we do nothing to address it.

The waste management systems in New York and across the nation currently reward disposal over recycling or reuse. Disposable products are a disaster for the environment, but they’re undeniably cheap to manufacture. If the companies that produce these products are held financially responsible for their end-of-life management, we can incentivize efforts to reduce unnecessary waste and create more products that can be recycled and reused. That’s the revolutionary idea behind EPR.

An EPR framework for packaging and paper products in New York would establish a more efficient, circular waste management system, financed by the very companies that produce potentially recyclable materials, and not reliant on taxpayer dollars. This system would advance new funding mechanisms and simplify recycling for the public. In doing so, it would reduce the overall amount of plastic that New Yorkers use and keep the plastic they do use in the economy where it belongs — instead of in our oceans, rivers and other critical ecosystems.

World Wildlife Fund applauds the governor’s decision to include a provision for EPR in her executive budget, as well as the effort by Sen. Todd Kaminsky, D-Long Beach, to refine what EPR means for New York in a bill he introduced last year. It’s clear that lawmakers are eager to tackle the waste problem and work toward solutions that benefit the planet, local economies and New Yorkers alike. The state budget process is the perfect opportunity to refine the details of EPR’s implementation and ensure that the goal of a more circular economy is included in the state’s priorities for the years ahead.

The Empire State has a crucial opportunity to promote accountability in the private sector, and give taxpayers and nature both some much-needed relief. We have a window of opportunity to implement EPR and transform our waste management system, and we must seize the moment. If New York can set an example now, other states will follow its lead and set the stage for transformational change on a national level. Only then will the United States be able to fulfill its obligations under a global treaty and help free the world from plastic’s chokehold.